Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.
Susee Engdahl, a retired but restless Windsor grade-school teacher and prolific painter whose family lived for a time in a self-built art project of a home on Chalk Hill Road, died Feb. 23 at age 80.
Engdahl was 40 and the divorced mother of five when she took her first teaching position at Windsor School. Through a nearly 30-year career she taught second, fourth and fifth grades. She retired from Brooks Elementary School in Windsor in 2001.
After her retirement, daughter Jane Engdahl said, “she found herself at a loss. Going from days filled with teaching, correcting papers and making lesson plans, she found that she wasn't meant for a life of leisure.
“Eventually, she pieced together a life filled with reading to preschoolers, a weekly painting group and trips to San Jose to take care of her son Chris' daughters, Robin and Haley Stephan Engdahl.”
Susee Engdahl continued to paint with acrylics until failing health caused her to put down the brushes about six weeks ago.
She was born in Mehama, Ore., a logging town on the Santiam River. She enrolled at 18 at Oregon State University, but her studies were cut short by a devastating medical diagnosis — she had contracted tuberculosis.
“Consigned to the Oregon Tuberculosis Hospital in Salem, she spent nine months watching friends die and learning to crochet,” said her daughter, the Sonoma County Fair's longtime special events coordinator.
She still was recovering from TB when in 1953 she married soldier, journalist, adventurer and inventor Don Engdahl. They settled in Santa Rosa in 1955, and Don Engdahl went to work as a reporter for The Press Democrat.
“By 1962,” daughter Jane Engdahl said, “they had five children and were building a house with a concrete roof on Chalk Hill Road outside of Windsor.”
“The house was very much a do-it-yourself project, and Susee learned to conquer her fear of heights as she plastered the 20-foot-high ceilings, dug a septic tank with a pick and shovel, painted the walls, grouted tile and worked with the only labor force available — her children — to landscape 3½ acres of hillside.”
After the bout with TB, the second greatest blow to Susee Engdahl's life was her divorce in 1971. She resumed her college education in preparation of going to work.
“During her two years at Sonoma State,” Jane Engdahl said, “the family qualified for welfare, which was the only thing that made it possible to put food on the table.”
After Engdahl earned a degree in psychology, she went on to get a teaching credential. She was nearly twice the age of many new teachers when she started at Windsor School.
Her daughter said that even in her first year of teacher, her income was so meager that she and children relied on food stamps.
“This experience turned her into a lifelong advocate for those in need,” Jane Engdahl said. “One of her great pleasures in recent years was writing checks to 'her charities.'
Throughout her adult life, Engdahl was an activist willing to endure the consequences of standing up for what she believed in. Her daughter said she was proud to be arrested at a SONOMoreAtomics demonstration against nuclear power, although she knew the activism might jeopardize her job.
“You name it, there wasn't a cause my mother wasn't in the middle of it,” Jane Engdahl said.
During summer breaks, she said, her mother often set off on journeys that made good fodder for later teaching her students about the wonders beyond Sonoma County.
She took solo bus trips across America and trekked to the Great Wall of China, the top of Mount Fuji, the Louvre and the pyramids of Egypt.
Engdahl's daughter said doctors weren't able to pinpoint the cause of her mother's decline over recent months and her death at home eight days ago.
“She just got so tired,” Jane Engdahl said. “That's basically it. She died of being tired.”
In addition to her daughter in Santa Rosa and her son and granddaughters in San Jose, she is survived by sons Garth Engdahl of Eugene, Ore., Eric Engdahl of Chicago and Lee Engdahl of Abu Dhabi.
A memorial celebration is set for March 9. For details, email SuseeEngdahl@yahoo.com.
Memorial donations may be made to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, 3320 Industrial Drive, Santa Rosa 95403 or the Community Child Care Council, 131-A Stony Circle, Suite 300, Santa Rosa 95401.
- Chris Smith